All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
–2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NRSV)
Wisdom that can only be accessed by the angels or by enlightened sages is limited wisdom. Torah is said to be G-d’s wisdom and as such must be boundless. Just as G-d is everywhere and in all things, while at the same time entirely transcendent of all things, so His wisdom must be a wisdom that is equally accessible to a five-year-old child as to a great scholar–as long as there is a mind there to receive. Stories about two brothers fighting, rules about splitting an article of disputed ownership–these are simple matters that everyone can relate to. And yet, in the way Torah deals with them, you can find a well of infinite wisdom.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“G-d in the Talmud”
This will probably get me in a lot of trouble, but I’ve been thinking about part of the conversation Pastor Randy and I had last Wednesday night. We had gotten together to discuss chapters 6 and 7 of D. Thomas Lancaster’s book The Holy Epistle to the Galatians, but one discussion inspiring comment in this book often sends Pastor Randy and I down unanticipated trails.
We were talking about the “nature” of the Bible. Pastor Randy is a self-proclaimed literalist and rests the core of his understanding of the Bible on being able to read the text in its original languages, factoring in the context, history, and “personhood” of the writing and the writer. On that level, you should be able to understand 100% of the Bible’s content as long as you have a sufficient background in the ancient languages, cultures, histories, and in some cases, biographies involved in the authoring of the various books and chapters.
But we both acknowledge that it doesn’t seem to work out that way. While some parts of the Bible seem to be understood in the same manner by most people, others elicit wild disagreements, sometimes even by people within the same church, let alone between different Christian churches, between different denominations, and certainly between Christianity and Judaism.
The other part that came up, as noted by Rabbi Freeman above, is that the Bible can be accessed on a variety of conceptual levels, from that of a five-year old child, to an aged, wise, and highly educated scholar. Pastor and I agreed that the Bible contains “depths” such that we can continue to explore forever and we will never comprehend all that there is this side of the Messiah.
I tried to introduce the idea that there might be a “mystic” side to all this built into the Bible itself but that statement came into conflict with Pastor Randy’s view of the Bible as an “object” that God deliberately caused to be written in human languages by human beings. In other words, God wants us to understand the Bible as a revelation…
In my opinion, yes and no.
An atheist can look at the Bible and compare it with other religious, mystical, and philosophical texts. The Bible is sometimes studied in universities as literature rather than as a sacred text. If only viewed at the level of an object containing words on paper, it should be ultimately knowable, and if it wasn’t uniquely inspired by God, it should be ultimately known. After almost two-thousand years of intense study, you’d think we’d have the Bible pretty much “mapped” by now.
Except we don’t. We haven’t reached the “limits” of the Bible. In plumbing its depths, we haven’t reached the bottom of its Mariana Trench. Those people who feel there’s nothing left to learn from the Bible either gave up too soon or they are choosing not to take the Bible seriously and meet it at where the Bible “lives.”
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
God spoke and the world was, and yet that spoken word is somehow also the living Messiah and if every word in what we call “the Bible” is also God-breathed, then the Bible we hold in our hands, though it is a printed book, is also something much more. So what do we find in the Bible when we actually try to read and understand what God is trying to tell us and how do we find the deeper message?
But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.
Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.
Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.
“For who has known the mind of the Lord
so as to instruct him?”
But we have the mind of Christ.
–1 Corinthians 2:12-16
We seem to require a unique set of tools beyond the usual hermeneutics, at least if we want to get past a certain level of comprehending the Bible. We actually seems to require some spirit-breathed help, since the Bible is as much a spiritual entity as it is a physical document. Perhaps those depths I’ve been discussing cannot be understood or even discovered without a competent guide, much like Indiana Jones following an ancient map in order to find an even more ancient and elusive treasure.
Or as Rabbi Freeman writes:
Similarly, Torah is not just about “what G-d thinks about” but also about “how to think like G-d.” G-d can choose to think about whatever He wishes to think about. The issue is not the subject but its treatment. That’s why Torah learning, as distinct from typical academic studies, is much more about process than about content. More about “how you got there” and less about “where you got to.”
Certain streams of Judaism have no problem at all understanding the Torah as associated with and even equivalent to God’s own wisdom and thoughts, not just the content of His mind, but the process of God’s thinking. And didn’t Paul say “we have the mind of Christ?”
Almost a month ago, I said that the Bible is water, but from a Chasidic point of view, this is more true than you might think:
When the sages compared the Torah to water, Rabbi Schneur Zalman explains, they had this quality in mind: Just as water descends from the highest place to the lowest without change, so the Torah descends from its place in the highest realms to become invested in mundane, material issues so that every person can grasp it–without any essential change in that wisdom.
It is true that God wants us to know Him from the Bible, but that may be a greater truth than we realize. The Bible is designed to be accessible and knowable to just about anyone, and yet it is not so knowable that it can ever completely be known, even by the greatest sage or scholar in any tradition across the vast span of human history.
The Bible is at once a book that can be read in its simplicity and an amazingly vast and unknown continent that has never been visited by people before. And it is all good, it is all very good.
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
–Psalm 19:7-11 (ESV)
But as accessible as the Bible is supposed to be to anyone and everyone, beyond a certain point, it’s best not to “go it alone.” When exploring unknown or uncertain territory, in addition to a map, it never hurts to have one or more experienced guides.
I’m convinced that it is the viewpoints of men like Paul Philip Levertoff and their uniquely Jewish view of the teachings of Messiah that will help open up the unknown continent to us. It is true that said “lost continent” will never be completely known, but it is completely knowable, and that is the challenge is before us (I’m hardly discounting the Spirit of God as our guide, but scholars and theologians are also men of the Spirit who can teach us).
I heard Daniel Lancaster recently say that we must examine the New Testament within its native environment: Judaism. In the case of most Christians, I don’t think it would hurt to have a guide who is Jewish and who knows the lay of the land.
It’s books like Levertoff’s Love and the Messianic Age and its accompanying commentary, as well as the soon to be released The Everlasting Jew by Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein that will be our traveling companions.
Ultimately the Spirit of God and the mind of Messiah will be our guides but we are the explorers. We are the men and women putting on our expedition hats or strapping on an Aqualung to our backs, getting ready to stride into the antediluvian forests or dive into the prehistoric oceans in search of secrets that have only been whispered since the Spirit of the Word moved over those waters who knows how long ago.
Looking at the Bible as a book with words and language and history and context makes it approachable by human beings and thus not so intimidating. Looking at the Bible like mystery novel and mysticism helps us realize how far beyond humanity is the wisdom and words of an infinite God.
This is only the beginning of the adventure.
6 thoughts on “The Undiscovered Continent of God”
When I first read your use of the term “mystic” as an approach to the scriptures, I wasn’t sure how you intended to apply it. It seems that you subsequently did apply it to the idea of being guided by HaShem’s Spirit to explore the “hidden” depths to which the term “mystic” literally refers. I’d like to add an observation to that notion.
Humans have a built-in means for dealing with a common problem: that we seldom or never have all the information that may be relevant to any situation. Therefore we “interpolate” or “fill in” where information seems to be missing, using an informed guess that reflects several possible aspects. It may include experience with what seem to be similar situations, or a similarly-based intuition, and it may include a number of assumptions about the characteristics of the new situation. It may even include feelings and attitudes regarding what is perceived about the situation, in a generalized gestalt. In other words, we use information that may be inapplicable or irrelevant in place of what we don’t know anyway. Given that, it is surprising that the process ever works out in our favor; but curiously enough, it does — at least sometimes.
It is not dissimilar with guidance by HaShem’s Spirit in approaching a concrete situation like a biblical text. Let me explain this by noting the Hebrew origin of the word that we render as “spirit”. It evokes a wind or breath in the literal sense, and any ephemeral influence in a metaphorical one. It is used in Hebrew idiom for attitudes, feelings, or moods. An attitude or mood is a “spiritual condition” in Hebrew thought. So when we invoke the concept of HaShem’s Spirit, we are invoking the idea of attitudes and perspectives that correspond with what we may know of HaShem’s values, expectations, assertions, et al, by which He may guide our understanding when we exercise our common human propensity to fill in the blanks. This works particularly well with biblical texts, and related Jewish texts that derive from those scriptures, because they contain an underlying infusion of such attitudes and perspective. Thus the “breath of His Spirit” would seem to be a necessary companion to all other tools of interpretation for such material.
I hope you don’t find this description too “mechanical”. I have found that folks who have become accustomed to anthropomorphized images of HaShem’s Spirit, sometimes even to polytheistic extremes, are disconcerted by the view I’ve described of a form of interaction with the G-d Who is One.
I’ll be the first one to admit that once we start considering the “spiritual perceptions” of the Bible, things get a little slippery. It’s safe to stay on the literal side of the Bible and to approach it with scientific tools, examining the languages used, the history of the period in which a particular writer was living, and a number of the knowable and known factors that influence the text. I believe that’s where we should start when trying to understand the Bible and for many scholars, that’s where the study stays. It’s safe. It’s reliable. But it’s also limiting.
It’s less reliable to consider the Spirit of God as a guide and a map to an unknown territory, and certainly this sort of thing has been abused before, knowingly and unknowingly. On the other hand, I’m convinced that at its heart, the Bible isn’t just a book like all other books that have been written by human beings. We can say that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, which to me means that God has “partnered with humans” in creating a source of information that could not have been arrived at by human means alone. But it could also mean that there’s something woven into the fabric of the Bible that transcends the text itself and goes into those “hidden realms” … something that God has left for us to find.
I’m not really a mystical sort of person, so I am limited in my ability to perceive what I’m poorly describing, but I can’t get past the sense that God has allowed us to go beyond our five senses and the limits of what we call “intellect” and to, metaphorically speaking, touch the hem of the garment of God.
It may not be very mechanical and it may not be considered Biblical, but I think of approaching the Bible not only as study but as exploration. In its pages we discover not only content, but the “process” of God, not just what God thinks about but how He thinks about it, at least to the limited extent of our ability to comprehend.
I value your insights PL and I am quite aware of the human capacity for self-delusion. People fool themselves all the time into thinking the spirit said this or the spirit said that when all the while, it was their imagination and wish-fulfillment in operation.
But there have been those few times in my life when I believe I encountered God in some manner. I can’t articulate the experience and it certainly wasn’t one of those “thus sayeth the Lord” sort of things. But the message of the Bible and the Spirit of God do sometimes tell a tale that goes beyond what we think and comprehend intellectually and perhaps for a brief moment, the Word is spoken through the “mouth” of the Spirit in a way that we can almost hear.
Yes, I understand. One of the reasons I do not tend to favor mystical views is that I have a very practical sense of non-physical realities. Without telling the story, let me merely report an experience of some 45 years ago when HaShem confronted me by means of His Spirit in tangible form. Thankfully, I was not shown His Face, but His Presence was almost enough to drive me to wish for even a suicidal escape. I have a very personal sense about the phrase: “it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living G-d” (Heb.10:31), though my story ends well (so far). The things He communicated (I can’t exactly say “said”) to me at that time were by far alien to my thinking and beyond anything that even my considerable imagination could have devised. So to me, a lot of what passes for esoteric mystical perception seems somewhat trite by comparison.
I can’t imagine what you experienced nor would I ever presume to try, but this does tend to support that God allows us to experience Him in ways that extend outside the “mechanics” of the Bible.
Well, that would certainly seem to have been the case when Rav Shaul got knocked off his high horse on the way to Damascus. [:)]
Or “high-donkey” as the case may be. 😉